Celebrating Bad: Speed Demon

Willa:  So Joie, you’d think I’d have learned by now never to label any of Michael Jackson’s videos as “just entertainment.” I thought that about You Rock My World – that it was “just entertainment” – but after talking with you about it last fall I’ve come to see it as a very pointed critique of the music industry. I thought that about In the Closet, but after talking with you about it last January I’ve come to see it as a fascinating look at taboo relationships. At different times I’ve thought it about Thriller, and Smooth Criminal, and Scream, but later came to see those three as some of his most important works. And I’ve thought it about Speed Demon, but now I’m starting to wonder if I haven’t been overlooking something important in that video as well.

It seems to me there are two major themes running through the nine Bad videos. First, there’s the extremely complicated issue of violence, poverty, and criminality, especially as it presents itself in the inner city. We see this theme in the videos for Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, Man in the Mirror, Smooth Criminal, and Speed Demon. Then there’s the complicated issue of celebrity and fame, as we see in Dirty Diana, Leave Me Alone, Liberian Girl, Another Part of Me, and Speed Demon. So Speed Demon – that cute, quirky, inoffensive little claymation video – is the place where these two major themes intersect.

Joie:  Willa, I have to say, you have me intrigued now because I don’t think of Speed Demon in terms of “violence, poverty and criminality,” as you put it.

Willa:  Well, he has a light touch. You wouldn’t think someone could make an enjoyable video about some of our worst and most complicated social ills, but he did – over and over again.

Joie:  Well, yes. That’s true; he did. But, I’m not sure I see that going on in Speed Demon. And I also never would have thought about Liberian Girl or Another Part of Me as commentaries on celebrity and fame so, I’m interested to see where you’re going with this.

Willa:  I know what you mean, Joie. I would have said the same thing just a few days ago. Speed Demon especially seems to have more in common with Wallace & Gromit than Beat It, at least on the surface.

Joie:  Wallace & Gromit. That’s funny!

Willa:  Well, you know what I’m saying – it’s claymation! But remember a couple weeks ago when you asked me what I saw as the major themes of Bad?

Joie:  Yeah.

Willa:  Well, I’d never thought about that before, so I started listening to the songs and watching the videos with that question in mind, and as I was doing that these two very disparate themes started to emerge, especially in the videos. I mean, think about it:  is there a video anywhere with more celebrities than Liberian Girl? It’s nothing but celebrities. And suddenly there’s Michael Jackson behind the scenes laughing, which seems like such an interesting statement all in itself!

And look at the opening of Another Part of Me and how it focuses on his complicated relationship with his fame – how he both enjoys it but seeks refuge from it, and how he uses it to convey his “message” – a message he states very clearly in the chorus:

We’re sending out a major love
And this is our message to you
The planets are lining up
We’re bringing brighter days
They’re all in line waiting for you
Can’t you see?
You’re just another part of me

So he’s on a mission to send “major love” out into the world, and he uses his art and his celebrity to help him accomplish that. But this isn’t an easy issue – his celebrity both empowers him and isolates him. And as usual, he presents these ideas in subtle but sophisticated ways in the video.

Joie:  Hmm. That is very interesting, Willa. I see your point. And what you’re saying makes a lot of sense. I guess, now that you mention it, I have been thinking of both Liberian Girl and Another Part of Me as purely entertainment. And you’re right – that is something that we should never do when it comes to Michael Jackson.

Willa:  We really shouldn’t. It’s easy to fall into that because his work is so entertaining, but there are always so many layers to his work, and a lot of times there are really interesting things happening if we just look. Like it’s easy to dismiss Speed Demon as just a cartoon, but it addresses his complicated relationship with his celebrity as well. It opens with him being chased by some over-eager fans, and they’re pretty rude and obnoxious.

Joie:  Oh, they are incredibly rude and obnoxious! And it makes me kind of sad to think that he may have encountered that often, you know? That fans were ever that thoughtless and unkind to him. In fact, I have a hard time thinking of them as fans; to me, they’re more like an angry mob that’s out to get him. They even seem to be quite angry at him as they chase him around the movie set and out onto the open road. And the longer they chase him, the angrier they seem to become.

Willa:  They really do. You know, it’s presented as this fun chase sequence – and he does seem to enjoy it – but all the same, there is something threatening about it and he really doesn’t want them to catch him. And I think he did have to deal with obnoxious fans sometimes. He talked about it in a 1978 phone interview with Lisa Robinson. She asked him, “do you still like meeting your fans?” and he said,

I enjoy all that sometimes, seeing people who love me, or buy my records. I think it’s fun, and I enjoy meeting my fans and I think it’s important. But sometimes people think you owe your life to them; they have a bad attitude – like, ‘I made you who you are.’ That may be true – but not that one person. Sometimes you have to say to them, If the music wasn’t good, you wouldn’t have bought it. Because some of them think they actually own you. Someone will say, “Sit down,” “Sign this,” or “Can I have your autograph?” and I’ll say, “Yes, do you have a pen?” And they say, “No, go get one.” Honestly. I’m not exaggerating. But I just try to deal with it.

And remember, this was in 1978 – three years before Thriller came out.

Joie:  Yes, I remember that interview and it is really sad when you think about it. And again, I have a difficult time thinking of those people as fans. I guess I just have a different idea of what that word means. “Fan.” You know, oftentimes that word has such a negative connotation to it. Especially with regard to Michael Jackson fans. But I’ve been in the fan community a long time and I know Michael Jackson fans to be some of the nicest, most respectful people I’ve ever met, so that’s difficult for me to reconcile. But, I’m certain from his point of view there were times when the attention probably became extremely rude or even threatening. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live with that kind of attention 24/7.

But I was really more referring to the video itself – not his real life. In the short film, the “fans” who are chasing him sort of become this angry mob that seems like they’re out to get him. And it’s not clear what they intend to do with him if they catch up to him. Do they want to hurt him or do they simply want his autograph? It’s difficult to tell by the snarls on their faces. It’s no wonder he’s trying to get away from them!

Willa:  I think you’re exactly right, Joie – they are like a “mob,” meaning they’re gripped by that weird mob mentality that takes over sometimes, and I think Michael Jackson had seen how dangerous that could be and was scared of it. We see that fear of the mob in the intro to Ghosts. And he said in a number of interviews that being mobbed “hurts.” That people go crazy and start pulling your hair and twisting your arms, and it really hurts. Apparently, the first time the Jackson 5 went to England, a mob scene broke out at the airport and he could have been killed. He was wearing a scarf, and one girl grabbed one end and another grabbed the other end, and they were both pulling as hard as they could. The scarf was tightening around his neck, and he couldn’t breathe and couldn’t loosen it, and his brothers had to rescue him. What a scary story!

So you’re right – it’s hard to predict what a mob will do, and it’s not clear at all what the mob chasing him in Speed Demon will do if they catch him.

Joie:  But luckily, they don’t get that chance because they all end up getting stopped for speeding and causing a pile-up of sorts. The last we see of them, they’re all being taken away in a police wagon as Michael speeds away, finally free to breathe now that the mob that was chasing him is gone. He heads out to the open road and stops for a few minutes to discard the costume he used to escape his pursuers, then finds himself in the middle of a dance-off when that costume comes to life and issues a challenge.

But I have to say, Willa, that while I agree that the complicated issues of celebrity and fame are definitely present in this short film, I’m still not really seeing the issues of ‘violence, poverty and criminality’ in Speed Demon that you mentioned at the beginning of this discussion.

Willa:  Well, think about those repeated lines from the police:  “Pull over, boy, and get your ticket right.” There’s so much sheer joy of flight in Speed Demon, just the exhilaration of speed and escaping all the pressures being put on him. But then near the end a trooper gives him a ticket. In fact, there are policemen throughout this video, and a lot of times they’re chasing him too. So while it’s a policeman who puts those obsessive fans in jail and kind of rescues him from the mob, as you just described, another policeman shows up and treats him like a criminal.

You know, what really started me thinking differently about Speed Demon was the MJ Academia Project videos. Unfortunately, the people who posted those videos have taken them down and they aren’t available at the moment, which is disappointing. I’d really like to watch them again and link to them right now. I hope they repost them. But anyway, in one of their videos they talk about how Michael Jackson repeatedly uses the word “boy” in a number of songs and videos as a code word for how black men have been treated by the criminal justice system in the U.S., and they specifically mention Speed Demon. I’d never thought of Speed Demon like that – as anything more than a cartoon, actually – but I started listening to it differently after that. And one thing I realized is that the video really softens the message of the song. If you can somehow block the video images out of your mind while listening to it, it feels much grittier than when your mind is full of Michael Jackson in a dancing competition with Spike, the claymation rabbit (which I love, by the way).

So, as he does so many times with so many different subjects, he shows how complicated human relationships can be. He loves his fans, but feels threatened by them when they turn into a mob. He feels protected by the police, especially when the mob is carted off to the police station, but he also knows the police can turn on him at any minute and criminalize him. And this was filmed in 1988, before he’d really experienced just how biased and abusive the police could be.

Joie:  Well, I agree with you, the video does really soften the message of the song. And I wonder if he did that intentionally, seeing as how this video was part of the movie, Moonwalker – which is really sort of a kid’s movie with a feel-good theme to it. But, as we talked about last week, this is one of those short films where the visual he presents us with is much different than what we conjure up in our minds when merely listening to the song itself.

Willa:  That’s true, though we need to be careful about viewing Moonwalker as just entertainment also. It does have a fun, “feel-good” mood through most of it, but there’s a lot of very interesting things going on in that movie. We should talk about that sometime. I can’t believe we’ve been chatting about Michael Jackson’s work for a year now and still haven’t talked about Moonwalker.

But getting back to Speed Demon, we really see that structure of a fun entertaining film overlying a serious message here too. In some ways, he seems to be exploring the role of artists in society, and how artists and police are kind of at cross purposes. The police tend to want everyone to follow the rules and behave in conventional ways, even if that has nothing to do with legality, and artists are constantly challenging those conventions. We see that conflict between the police and the artist with the “sheriff” from the western movie early in the video. He starts chasing Michael Jackson and calls out to him in this really patronizing way, “Hey, Songbird.” And then at the end the trooper gives him the ticket, saying, “I need your autograph right here.” Importantly, the ticket isn’t for speeding. It’s for dancing.

Joie:  Well, in the trooper’s defense, Willa, it was a clearly marked No Dancing zone!

Willa:  That’s true! And you notice he’s a very law-abiding citizen. He doesn’t dance after the trooper points to that funny sign telling him he’s not supposed to, though you know he disagrees with it.

But you know, while this is all handled in a very light, entertaining way, it’s addressing some really complex ideas as well. The policeman is trying to rein him in and prevent him from dancing, from expressing his art, and even treats him as a criminal, or at least a law-breaker, because of his dancing. And this ties back to what we talked about a couple weeks ago with the Bad short film. As we said then, artists and criminals actually have something in common: they both challenge social norms. They do it in very different ways – one legally to improve our cultural awareness, and one illegally and often destructively – but sometimes that distinction becomes blurred and artists are treated as criminals. And Michael Jackson was very aware of that, as he shows us in Speed Demon and Bad, and perhaps most explicitly in Ghosts. Remember, the “crime” he’s accused of in Ghosts is being an artist, a teller of ghost stories, and too outrageously different.

And I think this criminalization of artists played out in very real ways in how the police (and the press and the public) interpreted the allegations against him in 1993 and 2003. It’s like there was this idea that he was willing to transgress social norms – by singing and dancing, by challenging gender and racial boundaries, by representing the Other, as Joe Vogel described a few weeks ago – so some people seemed to think that maybe he was willing to transgress legal and moral boundaries as well and do illegal, immoral things.

Joie:  I think that’s a very interesting point, Willa. And maybe a very simplistic way of describing that is the old saying ‘judging a book by its cover.’ Because he looked “strange” or “freaky” to some, then perhaps he was more likely to be a criminal than someone who looked sweet and innocent. Actress Winona Ryder comes to mind. Who would have ever imagined she would behave like a common criminal? After all, she looked so “normal.”

Willa:  I don’t really know much about the Winona Ryder case, except that it got a lot of attention in the press – far more than shoplifting charges usually get. But this criminalization of artists has a long history. Think about the McCarthy trials, and how many artists’ careers were destroyed by them. And William Tyndale, who may have been the greatest English poet of all time. Most of the King James Bible was written by Tyndale, and you can make the case that Shakespeare wouldn’t have been Shakespeare without him – even the cadence of his language reflects Tyndale. And Tyndale was burned at the stake.

And I always wonder how many of the women, and men too, condemned as witches during the Salem witch trials had an artist’s sensibility. They were definitely people who didn’t fit in, and were seen as “strange” or “freaky,” as you just said. Many were independent women who didn’t marry and lived unconventional lives. And this is interesting: one of the first people accused during the trials was a slave named Tituba who liked to tell children stories, just like the Maestro in Ghosts.

Joie:  That’s a really interesting point, Willa. And you’re probably right about that, many of them probably were artists in some form, or at the very least, free thinkers – also like the Maestro in Ghosts. But I think what you’re trying to get at is that, even though on the surface it’s a cute little claymation video, Speed Demon is anything but childish or simplistic.

Willa:  Exactly. Or maybe what I’m trying to say is that it works on both levels. It’s a fun, cartoon-like film that kids enjoy, but there are some complicated ideas for adults to grapple with as well.


About Dancing with the Elephant contributors

Joie Collins is a founding member of the Michael Jackson Fan Club (MJFC). She has written extensively for MJFC, helping to create the original website back in 1999 and overseeing both the News and History sections of the website. Over the years she conducted numerous interviews on behalf of MJFC and also directed correspondence for the club. She also had the great fortune to be a guest at Neverland. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was three years old. Lisha McDuff is a classically trained professional musician who for 30 years made her living as a flutist, performing in orchestras and for major theatrical touring productions. Her passion for popular musicology led her to temporarily leave the orchestra pit and in June 2013 she received a Master’s degree in Popular Music Studies from the University of Liverpool. She’s continuing her studies at McMaster University, where she is working on a major research project about Michael Jackson, with Susan Fast as her director. Willa Stillwater is the author of M Poetica: Michael Jackson's Art of Connection and Defiance and "Rereading Michael Jackson," an article that summarizes some of the central ideas of M Poetica. She has a Ph.D. in English literature, and her doctoral research focused on the ways in which cultural narratives (such as racism) are made real for us by being "written" on our bodies. She sees this concept as an important element of Michael Jackson's work, part of what he called social conditioning. She has been a Michael Jackson fan since she was nine years old.

Posted on September 19, 2012, in Michael Jackson and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 54 Comments.

  1. I am surprised to see the new post up before midnight! great.

    About the use of ‘boy’–it appears in the unreleased ‘Price of Fame.’ The father says, ‘Don’t you ever complain, boy!” about the ‘price of fame.’ Sorry to hear the Acadenia Project took down their videos–wonder what’s up?

    Michael was stopped by police and detained for a while at the police station b/c they did not believe he owned the car he was driving (maybe a Mercedes, not sure). This was when he was quite young, and living at Hayvenhurst. He might have had that experience in mind in ‘Speed Demon.’ The mob that pursues Michael in SD is really unattractive, trying to catch him in such a predatory way. Is there a wily coyote/roadrunner game going on here where Michael outsmarts them as in the cartoons?? I agree there is something ominous about their pursuit, but when Michael transforms into the rabbit, a trickster figure, he seems happy and at ease.

    In terms of the Salem witch trials, not all the accused were artists or outsiders–there were people accused who were respected pillars of the community, like Rebecca Nurse and Giles Cory. But I agree that artists are often suspect and seen as Other (so sad about Tyndale). The Salem witch trials had a lot to do with the waning power of the church and the rise of scientific materialism as an alternate way of looking at the world.

    Have you listened to the SD remix on “Bad 25”? I’m glad you looked at Speed Demon–it has a lot going on–I love the dance scene between Michael and the rabbit claymation. Michael looks so happy.

  2. So I’m thinking, why a rabbit? I googled “rabbit rebel” and voila, up pops a 1949 Bugs Bunny cartoon called Rebel Rabbit! Reading about the cartoon, I saw lots of insight in interpreting Speed Demon. Here’s the Wikipedia entry about it:

    Bugs notices high bounties on various animals but he is offended by the two-cent bounty (equal to $0.20 today) on rabbits. Bugs has himself mailed to Washington DC, where a supercilious game commissioner explains that the bounty is so low because, while foxes and bears are “obnoxious” animals who damage property, “rabbits are perfectly harmless”. Bugs vows to prove that he can do just as bad and storms out, slamming the game commissioner’s door so hard that the glass in it shatters.

    Bugs begins his campaign by attacking a guard with his own billy club. From there, he pulls stunts like renaming Barney Baruch’s private bench as “Bugs Bunny”, painting barbershop-pole stripes on the Washington Monument, rewiring the lights in Times Square to read “Bugs Bunny Wuz Here”, shutting down Niagara Falls, selling the entire island of Manhattan back to Native Americans, sawing Florida off from the rest of the country, swiping all the locks off the Panama Canal, filling in the Grand Canyon, and literally tying up railroad tracks.

    An angry Senator Claghorn-esque Congressman demands action against Bugs but is interrupted by Bugs, who emerges from the congressman’s hat, slaps him and gives him a mocking kiss. The cartoon then shows live-action footage of the entire War Department mobilising against Bugs, although the War Department was replaced by the Department of Defense two years before this cartoon. Tanks come rumbling out of their garages, soldiers pour out of barracks, and bugles blow. Bugs, now satisfied with the $1 million bounty (equal to $9,767,832 today) on his head (although the bounty is for him specifically, not rabbits in general), is snapped out of a Tarzanesque mood by the whole Army coming after him. Bugs then dives into a fox hole as artillery shells surround the foxhole. Bugs then thinks he’s gone too far. Bugs has then ended up imprisoned on Alcatraz Island.

    • Wow–what a great find, Sandra, thanks so much, and I bet Michael had seen that cartoon. Apparently, he loved comic books and collected them and the kids just attended a comic books event. I love the antics that Bugs engaged in, esp. selling Manhattan back to the Native Americans!!! Go, Bugs Bunny and all tricksters, rabbits or not!

  3. Whoa, try googling “rabbit trickster” – tons of material here, especially Brer Rabbit:

    By definition, tricksters are animals or characters who, while ostensibly disadvantaged and weak in a contest of wills, power, and/or resources, succeed in getting the best of their larger, more powerful adversaries. Tricksters achieve their objectives through indirection and mask-wearing, through playing upon the gullibility of their opponents. In other words, tricksters succeed by outsmarting or outthinking their opponents.

    • Sandra, an excellent source for learning more about trickster figures and their function in both art and culture is Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. It’s fabulous, and I see so many connections to Michael Jackson. For example, as Hyde explains, “trickster is a boundary-crosser”:

      Every group has its edge, its sense of in and out, and trickster is always there, at the gates of the city and the gates of life, making sure there is commerce. He also attends the internal boundaries by which groups articulate their social life. We constantly distinguish—right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead—and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction. Trickster is the creative idiot, therefore, the wise fool, the gray-haired baby, the cross-dresser, the speaker of sacred profanities. Where someone else’s honorable behavior has left him unable to act, trickster will appear to suggest an amoral action, something right/wrong that will get life going again. Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox.

      So as Hyde says, “Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox.” Sound familiar?

      I also think it’s significant that many of Michael Jackson’s favorite characters – Peter Pan, Bugs Bunny, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp – are tricksters as well. Whenever critics talked about his fascination with Peter Pan, they almost always framed it as a pathological obsession with staying young and a fear of growing old, but that misses the point, I think. The central feature of Peter Pan’s character is his mischievousness, his creativity, and his disruption of the established social order. Hyde talks about this quite a bit – about the cultural function of tricksters – and that has very important implications for how we interpret Michael Jackson and his art as well.

  4. Maybe I’m wrong but I remember to have read somewhere that Michael wrote Speed Demon about his music engineer, Bruce Swedien. He liked to ride big motorbikes and that inspired Michael to write this song and I think it was written fairly quickly, in an afternoon or so. Does anyone else remember this story or is it just my mind playing tricks on me?

  5. More on rabbits (from a person who has them as animal companions):

    “Br’er Rabbit is a Trickster, for example, as is the rabbit Manabozho in Native American myths. We all know Bugs Bunny, of course, in popular American cartoons. The idea is that Rabbit can stay one step ahead of the enemies, literally from without or figuratively from within. We know that ‘real’ rabbits zigzag in complex patterns to escape predators; the symbol evoked is that one is more intelligent and quicker than those in pursuit.

    Rabbit is also a Shape Shifter, to use the Native American Shamanic term. One moment he is benignly hidden in the grass, an innocuous little bunny rabbit…and the next he is a ferocious Monty-Pythonesque fracas of razor-sharp teeth, and splayed claws, spewing growls of anger. House rabbits especially, can represent Bravery as they defend their territory against the others, be it dog, cat or human. This is a symbolic allusion to “facing fears”, not simply thumping in fear as Disney would have us believe. “Know thyself,” the Greek philosophers taught. Rabbit always knows “where he is,” at any moment, on any issue, in any arena. As a prey animal, is it absolutely necessary to know where the escape routes are located, who and where the predators are, and to remain in command of one’s senses. Rabbit in this instance would bring to mind that we often need to do the same, especially in some environments. Rabbit always has contingency plans for everything.

    And one important symbolical meaning that Rabbit should elicit in us is that of playfulness and joy. Their nonsense displays of happiness are part of the Dance of Life-which is nothing more than a Cosmic Binkie.”

    And from a Native American:
    “Rabbit is a symbol of fear. It is commonly believed that one “calls” their fears to themselves, by speaking them aloud. Rabbit’s lesson to mankind is to not allow your fear to hamper you in your everyday life. Some fear is a good thing or we would walk into danger too frequently and be hurt or killed, but we should not allow fear to keep us from getting on with our lives.
    Please realise that not all Native American tribes have the same beliefs and interpretation of symbols, I have given you what I was taught.”

  6. Hello Willa, Joie, and all. This is my first comment on Dancing with the Elephant, but I have been reading the blog with great interest and delight for a long time. I appreciate and enjoy so much your contribution to the growing body of intelligent, thoughtful analysis of Michael’s work. And I also love the way you allow the personal to mingle with the academic in your commentaries. Thank so much for the time you spend to create these posts!

    I was delighted to see this post on “Speed Demon.” I gave a paper at a conference last spring in which I discussed “Leave Me Alone” and “Speed Demon” as part of Michael’s many artistic efforts to respond to fame, celebrity culture, and the abuse he took from the press throughout his career.

    One think I’d like to add to the discussion so far here is that the among the mob of individuals who take part in the chase in “Speed Demon” are a group of reporters/paparazzi, so the narrative seems to address the hounding press as well as the crazed fans, picking up on a theme Michael also deals with in the film for “Leave Me Alone.”

    I think it’s interesting that the Jackson character in the “Speed Demon” film clearly doesn’t want to be chased and hounded by fans and the press, but he is also portrayed as enjoying the challenge of trying to escape them. The playful musical soundtrack, his smiles, his coy game of hide and seek with his pursuers, and his sheer delight in the various speedy means he finds to elude them, all express his enjoyment of the game even as he works to escape the invasive mobs. Here, he is not asking that they “leave him alone;” rather, he actively participates in a contest that pits his character’s speed, agility, physical virtuosity, and creativity against the relentless, insatiable press and the crazed fans.

    I agree that it’s important to recognize that Jackson’s alter ego in “Speed Demon” is the human-sized rabbit figure that both embodies the quality of speed that drives the narrative and also alludes to the clever trickster in the cartoon character of Bugs Bunny, one of Jackson’s favorites, a figure that also resonates with many other trickster figures, as the comments have pointed out. In this video, it’s not only Jackson’s speed that allows him to escape the pursuing press, but also his trickster-like ability to disguise and transform himself. The Claymation and all the special effects in the film portray Jackson not only as faster than those who are after him, but also more clever and magically endowed with special transformative powers that they don’t have. I think that transformative power is connected to the power of the artist.

    The metatheatrical elements of the video, including the studio lot setting, Jackson’s escape into the wardrobe department, and his donning of the rabbit costume, foreground artifice and theatricality as important elements of the narrative. They also thematize Jackson’s own performative talents as the specific qualities that enable him to elude the throngs of press who chase him. His art is, paradoxically, not only the reason why everyone is pursuing him, but also a creative means of escape and survival, and seemingly a source of great pleasure and satisfaction amidst his chaotic life as a celebrity.

    The last sequence of the video, in which Jackson has finally arrived, on his motorcycle and still in the rabbit disguise, at a quiet, empty spot in the desert is really interesting in this context. Jackson removes the disguise, sets it aside, and seems ready to ride away without it when he gets a tap on the shoulder from an animated, human-sized rabbit. His costume has come to life. Originally from the wardrobe department back at the studio, this costume provided him with the practical means to disguise himself and escape his pursuers, but in this scene I think it also comes to represent Jackson’s creative power. The fact that the costume will not lay inanimate by the roadside when he removes it suggests that this power is an intrinsic part of him that will surface no matter what the circumstances. Jackson looks a little surprised when the rabbit greets him with a few funky Jackson-eque hand gestures, but he instantly accepts the rabbit’s presence, entering fully into the imaginative realm that allows a flesh and blood human to interact with a human-sized Claymation figure, and the two go on to engage in a friendly dance competition in the middle of the desert highway. As Jackson’s artistic doppelganger, the rabbit’s improvised moves are as good as his own, and it’s clear that Jackson takes great delight in dancing with his equal in a moment of pure creative joy uninterrupted by mobs of fans and reporters. But this delightful artistic collaboration is abruptly curtailed by the arrival of a stern motorcycle cop who gives Jackson a ticket, for dancing in a no dancing zone.

    Meanwhile, the rabbit has somehow escaped the encounter with the law and is nowhere to be found. I think that this development in the narrative suggests that the freedom and energy of the artist is always threatened, not only by those who mob him because of his celebrity, but also by the constraints of society’s rules and restrictions, represented here by the police officer (a kind of sad foreshadowing of the infuriating encounters with the legal system that were not too far off in Michael’s future). As the film ends with Michael ruefully getting ready to ride off with his ticket, the rabbit alter ego emerges from within a large desert rock formation in the distance and the two smile at each other. I think that this suggests that art/artists are integral aspects of our world, as natural as the rock formation in the desert, and also that they are capable of infinitely transforming themselves and of finding ways to elude social demands and restrictions.

    Sorry for going on so long . . . it’s just so exciting to have found a community of folks who are interested in serious discussion of MJ’s work!

    • Welcome aboard Marie. You can go on for so long anytime you like – what a wonderful contribution, and i sincerely hope this will not be your first and last time. it is great isn’t it to find people so interested and informed about Michaels work – my knowledge of him sadly as an ‘after-death’ fan has grown enormously thanks to this blog by Willa and Joie and all the contributors. Indeed nothing Michael did was ‘just entertainment’.

    • aldebaranredstar

      Hi, Marie, and thanks so much for your insightful discussion of SD! I agree so much with your comments, and thanks for pointing out the presence of the paparazzi (the gang of ‘camera heads’ clicking away like automatons). They are overheard saying, “He’s tough to shoot,” and the connection between cameras and guns is reinforced when the sheriff and ‘bad guy’ from the Western movie set join the paparazzi chasing Michael.

      I think Michael is flustered/distressed by all this pursuit to some extent, but once he transforms into the rabbit Spike, his alter-ego, the magical powers of the trickster/artist free him and allow him to keep transforming himself (into various characters, including Sylvester Stallone, Pee Wee Herman, a black female police officer), and to transform the bicycle to a motobike, motorboat, and to a rocket flying through the air. These transformative powers do seem integral to the artist, as you said, “I think that transformative power is connected to the power of the artist.” I like how you identify the social norms represented by the ticket-writing cop that restrict and block artistic expression. When the rabbit transforms into the rock formation, it is as if the rabbit is a spirit inside Michael, the artist, and that this spirit and the artist can never be separated. Michael was bringing the magic to all of us and asking us to be artists and to see ourselves as creative beings.

      Thanks for your insights. I wonder what you make of the Statue of Liberty coming alive and saying to Michael, “Land of the free, home of the weird”? Is this a critique of the life he was forced to lead–pursued by all kinds of bizarre beings with bizarre agendas?

    • Wow, wow, and wow again – so many fascinating ideas in the comments this week! Marie, I’m especially intrigued by the trickster elements you and Sandra identified, and think this is such an important element of Michael Jackson’s aesthetic. I especially love this comment:

      In this video, it’s not only Jackson’s speed that allows him to escape the pursuing press, but also his trickster-like ability to disguise and transform himself. The Claymation and all the special effects in the film portray Jackson not only as faster than those who are after him, but also more clever and magically endowed with special transformative powers that they don’t have. I think that transformative power is connected to the power of the artist.

      I agree, and we see this idea of the transformative power of the artist – of the artist as trickster and shape-shifter – recurring throughout his work. One really telling example for me is at the end of Ghosts, when the three boys from Normal Valley mimic the Maestro and become tricksters and shape-shifters as well. (The two younger boys scare the Maestro by adopting the disguise he used to scare the villagers at the beginning, and the older boy grabs and distorts his face the way the Maestro did earlier.) The implication is that they are now becoming artists themselves precisely because they have become imbued by this transformative impulse.

      I also love your reading of Spike as both Michael Jackson’s alter-ego and an embodiment of his creative power – and as you say, the dance competition between them is so interesting in this context. I was really struck by this line: “The fact that the costume will not lay inanimate by the roadside when he removes it suggests that this power is an intrinsic part of him that will surface no matter what the circumstances.” This ties in so well with that idea Michael Jackson frequently expressed that his creativity somehow existed outside himself – that it didn’t originate with him so much as flow through him. As you say, it’s “an intrinsic part of him,” but also larger than him. Joie and I talked with Joe Vogel about this a little bit last fall, and in his Earth Song book, Joe cites this John Lennon quotation that Michael Jackson kept over the soundboard during the recording of “Earth Song”:

      When the real music comes to me, the music of the spheres, the music that surpasseth understanding – that has nothing to do with me, ’cause I’m just the channel. The only joy for me is for it to be given to me, and to transcribe it like a medium…. Those moments are what I live for.

      We kind of see a personification of this idea in that dance competition since, as you suggest, Spike represents his creativity – a force that is both intimately connected with him and yet separate from him, something he interacts with but can’t fully control.

      But then, as you say, “this delightful artistic collaboration is abruptly curtailed by the arrival of a stern motorcycle cop who gives Jackson a ticket, for dancing in a no dancing zone.” But despite the harassment of the police, his creativity survives – it literally goes underground and emerges in the cliff face – and in some ways seems even more powerful, and more elusive, than before.

      So much to think about! btw, Joie and I will be posting a chat about Leave Me Alone next week, so really hope you join in the conversation next week also. It’s such a fascinating video, and I’m really curious to hear your take on it.

  7. Hi y’all. I had also read somewhere that Michael had been pulled over and ticketed for speeding on his way to the studio and wrote this song – have a feeling Quincy Jones tells the story somewhere? It just blows my mind that such an ‘ordinary’ experience – but of course not ordinary to Michael – could be turned into that song and that marvellous short film – what a mind and imagination he had. Of course not being American, quite a lot of it is lost on me in terms of meaning, but that doesn’t matter – I still very much enjoy it as entertainment, but now Willa and Joie have, as ever, added meaning to it for me – thanks.
    Also I seem to think that claymation was something fairly new at that time, and of course Michael would have loved to use it for a short film, as he was always interested in new things. We have a lovely tv commercial here where one woman says to another “you are so far ahead of the curve, you are round the bend”, and I think of Michael being so far ahead of the curve almost always.
    Thanks for all the material on rabbits. I also wondered why Michael chose a rabbit,though of course he loved all animals, and I too just love the dance routine with Spike, which for my money was worth every cent of the fine – would have willingly paid it for him ha ha.

  8. For my Skywalker friend, and anyone else interested, there is a Crystal Rabbit Moon in the Mayan moon calender. The Mayans recognised the profile of a rabbit in the dark spots of the moon, and worshipped rabbits for their astuteness and courage. The rabbit has big eyes in the side of his head and therefore has almost 360 degree vision so that he can see everything clearly. I can certainly think of someone we know who as astute, courageous and very clear sighted when it came to his art.

    • aldebaranredstar

      To my Eagle friend, a big thank you! That is so interesting that the Mayans saw a rabbit, not a ‘man’ in the moon shadows. Thanks too for pointing out that the rabbit’s eyes give it such extensive vision–yes, Michael’s a visionary too.

  9. Wow to everyone of you, Willa, Joie and all the commenters! Marie, you have totally opened my eyes, a huge thank you for sharing your ideas, just phenomenal. Would love to hear much, much more!

    For those of us lucky enough to have heard Joe Vogel’s presentation in Gary, Indiana a few weeks ago, Joe pointed out an important detail about Speed Demon that I had not thought about before, the dead segue between this track and Liberian Girl. He interpreted the chase in SD as a need to escape control, which he resolves by directly entering the fantasy world of Liberian Girl. This seems to fit beautifully with the idea that MJ’s art was his means of dealing with the tremendous pressure it also created for him. Liberian could even be interpreted as Liberation.

    I freely admit that I had fallen into the trap of considering both Speed Demon and Liberian Girl as light weight tracks! How shallow of me! And now that I see and understand some of these meanings, suddenly I am hearing things in these tracks I have never heard before. I am literally hearing and seeing it all for the first time. Absolutely amazing! And what a gift, thank you to you all.

    • Thanks, ultravioletrae, for your kind words and to everyone else for responding so enthusiastically and making me feel welcome. Much appreciated! I have learned so much from all of you as a reader of this wonderful blog.

      Ultravioletrae, thanks for sharing that interesting detail about “Liberian Girl” from Joe Vogel’s presentation in Gary. It makes perfect sense. It would be really interesting to look into all the “fantasy worlds” Michael creates (including Neverland, of course). He’s always been accused of being out of touch with reality, pathologically arrested in childhood, not of this world, and so on. But I think that all of his fantasy worlds include yet go beyond the notion of “escapism” that was also so important to him. They are definitely fantasies of freedom and escape from the constraints and control that he must have felt as an artist and a celebrity, but they are always more than that. I haven’t through this through very carefully, and maybe something along these lines has been explored here earlier, but I think that these alternative worlds or fantasy worlds are always full of complex messages in MJs work. I also think that they are very importantly connected for him to the need to preserve a clear space in which creativity can flow. Certainly Neverland has often been misread as some kind of pathologically-inspired place, but I think it’s quite the opposite!

      • “But I think that all of his fantasy worlds include yet go beyond the notion of “escapism” that was also so important to him.” You hit the nail right on the head Marie! A couple of other textual examples Vogel gave were WBSS resolving into the Makoosa chant, and the opening drama of BorW resolving into MJ reinterpreting African dance and other dance traditions from around the world, while emphasizing the fantasy aspect of these scenes. I absolutely agree that there is much more there than mere escapism, it is much more profound. This could easily be a book topic!

      • aldebaranredstar

        Hi, again, Marie–yes, I agree so much with the idea that the so-called fantasy worlds are spaces for creativity to flow and I think Michael wanted to create this ‘clear space’ on a global scale, through his music, films, performances, messages. He spoke of ‘the playfulness of life’ as something that children knew and that we adults needed to re-learn. Kind of a reverse of St. Paul’s ‘put away childish things’ that we have been indocrinated in–more like, bring back ‘childish things’!! Things like play, creativity, fun, magic. I am hoping one day Willa and Joie will do a post on Neverland, and I agree with you that it is central to understanding Michael and it has not been looked at seriously, not the Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie connections.

        Hi, Ultravioletrae–thanks for your comments. I guess I do not see exactly how Liberian Girl is a fantasy. I read a comment that Liberia is a country that was created by freed slaves. It is a full-out love song to the singer’s Liberian Girl lover. Maybe someone could explain why it would be seen as a fantasy world?? I absolutely love this song. I am not so in love about the film (too little Michael and no dancing–and no love scenes). I guess it is fun to see all the celebs, and Michael looks so wonderful as the ‘Director,” something he really wanted to do–direct films.

        • Hi Aldebaranredstar!

          Very interesting that Liberia is a country of freed slaves, surely that must be where the name comes from.

          One interesting clue that defines LG as fantasy is the use of Swahili in the opening, which is not language of Liberia. Stephanie Shonekan is a musicologist who did research in her home country of Nigeria, and she found that Michael Jackson is the single biggest, most enduring African American hero in Nigeria, even surpassing Barack Obama. However, most individuals had some pretty negative things to say about MJ, and the use of Swahili in Liberian Girl was one of the biggest complaints! It seems to have created some resentment.

          But I think the text supports the fantasy interpretation with lines like: “just like in the movies, with two lovers in a scene…”

          I also think the music has a dreamy, etheric quality to it that suggests fantasy. Is that the way you hear it?

          • I agree – the history of Liberia is very interesting in this context. Thanks for sharing that, Aldebaran. And Ultravioletrae, I love Joe’s ideas about the segue from “Speed Demon” to “Liberian Girl,” and how that can be interpreted as a need for escape leading into a fantasy world – and I definitely experience “Liberian Girl” as a lush fantasy world. As you say, “the music has a dreamy, etheric quality to it that suggests fantasy.” Absolutely!

          • aldebaranredstar

            Hi, Ultravioletrae–that is very interesting about the use of Swahili and how that upset people. I guess they did not want to be mistaken for Liberia?? I just read this interesting tidbit: “The inspiration for the song came from when Michael was playing on his pinball machine.” (wikipedia) You never know where inspiration will strike! About the fantasy idea, I do see the lush, dreamy quality you speak of, but I also hear the same thing in ‘Break of Dawn”–do you?

            One thing I noticed is that Weird Al appears in the film for LG and he did the famous parody of “Bad” called “Fat”–I saw it recently and it is so funny. I’m happy that Michael wasn’t upset and had Al in LG. I can’t resist a link to ‘Fat.”

  10. aldebaranredstar

    Another thought–the place where Spike the rabbit and Michael dance is of course in the desert, maybe somewhere near Grand Canyon or even Monument Valley? So Michael’s escape is from the urban to the natural landscape, which is what he did when he bought Neverland. This is one of the objections to restoring Neverland as a place where fans could go b/c it is remote and on narrow country roads.

    I am wondering too if the ‘I need your autograph right here.” comment from the cop who stops the dance has a connection to signing contracts, as Michael did from a terribly young age, which stopped his ability to play?

  11. aldebaranredstar

    Some info on Liberia:

    “Along with Ethiopia, Liberia is one of two modern countries in Sub-Saharan Africa without roots in the European colonization of Africa. Beginning in 1820, the region was colonized by free blacks from the United States; most of them had been formerly enslaved. With the help of the American Colonization Society, a private organization that believed ex-slaves would have greater freedom and equality in Africa, these immigrants from the U.S. established a new country. African captives freed from slave ships were also sent there instead of being repatriated to their countries of origin. In 1847, these colonists founded the Republic of Liberia, establishing a government modeled on that of the United States and naming the capital city Monrovia after James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States and a prominent supporter of the colonization. The colonists, known as Americo-Liberians, led the political and economic sectors of the country.
    The country began to modernize in the 1940s following investment by the United States during World War II and economic liberalization under President William Tubman. Liberia was a founding member of the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity. A military coup overthrew the Americo-Liberian leadership in 1980, marking the beginning of political and economic instability and two successive civil wars that left approximately 250,000 people dead and devastated the country’s economy. A 2003 peace deal led to democratic elections in 2005. Today, Liberia is recovering from the lingering effects of the civil war and related economic dislocation, with about 85% of the population living below the international poverty line.” (wikipedia)

  12. aldebaranredstar

    Joe V. quotes Bruce Swedien saying LG was “one of my absolute favorites of all the music I have done with Michael.” I agree–I love it sooo much too.

  13. Hi Marie. You wrote, “I also think that they are very importantly connected for him to the need to preserve a clear space in which creativity can flow. Certainly Neverland has often been misread as some kind of pathologically-inspired place, but I think it’s quite the opposite!”

    I think that Neverland represents many things, and one of the most striking is that Neverland is a sort of artist’s colony – albeit an informal one. Hayvenhurst can be seen as the prototype with its home recording studio and rustic setting. At Neverland, some of MJ’s most consistent “collaborators” there included elements of the natural world (trees, mountains, water, etc) as well as animals. And children. In fact, the “connected learning” approach and collaborative play that education and media scholars are currently promoting, as well as the Reggio Emilia learning approach (with its focus on the environment), all arguably parallel MJ’s ideas about how to learn about and experience the world, particularly for/with children, as expressed in the ethos of Neverland, his talks with Rabbi Schmuley and F. Cascio, and “Dancing the Dream”.

    But when he purchased Neverland in the late 1980s, it was still the yuppie-era, the “Greed is Good” Gordon Gecko era, and an artist’s retreat/colony for one didn’t really make sense to a lot of people, especially since Michael was perceived as so commercial. And admittedly, as a music publisher, as an owner of his own production company, and an employer of many he was an artist-executive hybrid, or “hyphenate” as they say in the industry, a fact which is frequently overlooked and unexamined. This has been of interest to me for a while. But while many executives own or visit corporate retreats, Neverland didn’t look or sound much like the kind of retreat most of those types were familiar with. Probably Neverland didn’t really resemble the typical art colony, with its roller coasters and arcade. In that sense, Neverland really represented that liminality for which he is so famous, and feared. Neverland was a site of innovation and experimentation on so many levels.

    By the way, guys, I’m teaching a class on the Production and Reception of Icons this semester, and one of the cultural icons we’ll be examining is MJ!

    • aldebaranredstar

      Love the idea of Neverland as an artists’ colony and as a connected learning center–great!! It was indeed “a site of innovation and experimentation on so many levels,” somewhat like other experimental communities, such as the Fruitlands colony or even Findhorn, a new utopian experience where adults could find their inner child and where children could really celebrate being themselves. Michael, I think, was proud of how people felt transformed when they visited Neverland–really changed and healed as a result.

      Your course sounds terrific!

  14. Hi Sylvia and aldebaranredstar,

    I really love all the comments on Neverland as an informal artist’s colony, connected learning center, and, more generally, a liminal space that allows for experimentation and creativity, and for engaging freely in the kind of child-like play that helps creativity to flow. (It’s the same kind of space the trickster figure operates in, as well.) Another aspect of Neverland to think about, maybe, is the fact that Michael opened this very special place to people from such a wide social spectrum — everyone from his famous Hollywood friends to large groups of underprivileged kids to kids and families who were struggling with serious illnesses. Neverland was never exclusive and never a place only for “professional” artists as are, it seems, all those gorgeous tropical island retreats we hear about where bands go to record albums. As you mention, Sylvia, Neverland was not typical and it functioned as a “site of innovation and experimentation on so many levels.” And I agree, aldebaranredstar, that Michael must have been so pleased and “proud of how people felt transformed when they visited Neverland–really changed and healed as a result.” (Sylvia, I also think your course sounds wonderful! Would love to hear more about it. I teach in an English Dept. and I’m so bound by the demands of our fairly rigid curriculum that I rarely get to teach anything that interesting!)

    Willa, I think your readings of the transformations in “Ghosts” are spot on (here in the blog and in “M Poetica,” which I really loved reading). I’ve always admired Michael’s courage and steadfastness, if those are the right words, when it comes to the role of children in the “Ghosts” film. He went ahead and included them despite the ugly tabloid rumors that kept circulating after 1993. The boys at the end of “Ghosts” are budding artists, as you say, having been inspired by Michael’s Maestro character, and there’s such a clear element of child-like play in how that scene depicts them, which relates back to the importance of play and creativity we’ve been discussing as part of Neverland. Art, play, creativity, and childhood were all organically connected for Michael. That, in itself, is a very healing proposition, and one that Michael was always trying to put forward.

    I will be looking forward to your upcoming discussion of “Leave Me Alone!”

  15. So many interesting and inspiring ideas here…. thanks all, and welcome, Marie.

    Willa, you once cited the end of that book by Lewis Hyde, “Trickster Makes This World.” Intriguing: I’ve gotten the book, and need to carve out some time to read it. The parallels between the “trickster” and Michael in both Native American and African American traditions are really striking.

    I love the idea that you mentioned, Marie, about the inanimate object (the rabbit costume) being endowed with a living consciousness of its own. I also agree, Sylvia, that the entirety of Michael’s creative life—as an executive as well as an artist—is important to consider for many reasons. For one thing, the success he enjoyed (AND produced) is intricately tied to many seismic shifts that were going on in the 1980s (neoliberal economic policies, the intersection between globalization and American popular culture, etc.), and which in turn had a decisive effect on the many ways we understand the term “artist.” (But this could be a whole other discussion.)

    It also reminds me of one of Andy Warhol’s stated aspirations (and he had so many!): “I want to be the best business artist, or artist-businessman.” (paraphrased)

    Michael’s dual (or multiple!) identity as an artist-businessman, I think, changed the very nature of what it meant to be a “recording artist.” I have to say that getting my mind around this is a matter of personal importance to me, since I’ve long been a rather strident (even dogmatic!) advocate of an “an avant-garde” filmmaking practice that quite intentionally thumbs its nose at the commercial film industry (especially in the U.S.), and has historically expressed contempt for Hollywood’s methods, its values, its commercial hegemony, etc.

    (But leave it to Michael Jackson to come along and rock my world!)

    What you all are saying about Neverland as a sort of artists’ colony resonates with me, since I used to have (and hope to have again, sometime) the amazing good fortune of enjoying residencies at artists’ colonies. These were temporary paradises (MacDowell, Yaddo, a handful of others) that were set up to facilitate experimentation and exploration in the arts. In these communities, everyone would get their own workspace, but usually dine in a common area—-so you’d have some very well-known writers, visual artists, composers, performance artists, etc. (at that time, I was often the only filmmaker) at the table alongside younger and lesser-known people, who might or might not go on to achieve notoriety. Some of these colonies are also set up to accommodate dance companies and other larger collaborative enterprises.

    That these kinds of places even exist—places where you weren’t required to “cough up” a final product or produce a particular outcome— has always struck me, in this product-oriented world, as something of a miracle. I’ve sometimes nurtured a fantasy that some part of the Neverland estate might one day become an artist colony of that kind, maybe designed a bit differently….. to promote collaborative endeavors, to welcome less privileged children (and adults) for a creative retreat, to be a space for creative workshops, or a conference center of some kind….

    I’d love to hear more about what you’re teaching this semester, Sylvia… and you too, Marie. I also hope to do more teaching about Michael Jackson soon (I’ve done some, in the context of a “Film Musicals” class I sometimes offer).

  16. aldebaran,

    I also think it’s interesting, as you said, that the space in the desert (perhaps “South of the Border,” as he indicates in the lyrics?) represents a retreat, an open space or haven from the rigors of life in Los Angeles, or the film studio lot (“land of the weird”) where he was spotted in the first place.

    It’s also striking how often a police officer shows up at the end of many song-and-dance numbers in musicals. One well-known example is the cop that eyes Gene Kelly suspiciously after his exuberant dance in “Singing in the Rain”—there are many others, too. It’s like a recurring theme, where we’re meant to understand that there’s something transgressive about dancing—especially public dancing—- and that those who do it are potential troublemakers who have to be brought in line. But of course we identify with the dancer(s), not with the cops!

  17. Hello, Nina, and thanks for reminding me about the cop who restricts Gene Kelley’s dancing exhuberance–no public dancing (or singing) allowed!

    In thinking about the fascinating comments you, Marie, and Sylvia have made about Neverland, I see a possible connection to Thoreau’s experiment at Waldon Pond. Gloria Rhodes Berlin, the real estate agent for the purchase of Neverland, wrote about how Michael searched for and found a home in Sycamore Valley Ranch. He particularly required a place with deer (!) and a place that would guarantee privacy. She describes the plans Michael made for the ranch before he bought it, to create a sanctuary for his animals and himself and a kind of private amusement park and nature preserve for inner city and sick children. She asked him why he liked animals so much and he said because they are ‘healing.’ (So sad that such noble goals were distorted.)

    In Walden, Thoreau embraces the natural world, wildlife, solitude, nonconformity, and seeks the ‘higher laws’ of living in harmony with nature. His famous statement ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world” comes to mind, as well as his emphasis on simple living close to nature. I think of Michael climbing his ‘giving tree’ to write songs, and Dancing the Dream describes his strong connection to nature, to being ‘Earth’s child.”

    Even though Thoreau’s simple cabin was a far cry from Neverland, and Thoreau would have disapproved of some of the extravagances of Neverland, they shared a desire to live close to ‘wildness’ and to learn from and be inspired by it:

    “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

    Michael definitely lived deep and living on a 2,700 acre ranch called Neverland seemed to be part of it.

  18. Just watched the Spike Lee interview at Venice Film Festival on Joe Vogel website – what a fantastic ‘love letter’ he seems to have made. Does anyone know if and when it is going to be put on DVD so that we from the rest of the world can buy it? it will not be shown on our tvs of course – more’s the pity!! Also watched and listened to Siedah’s ‘love letter’ Keep on loving you video – also beautiful.

    • Hi Caro,

      I follow Spike Lee on Twitter, and I seem to remember him saying that his Bad25 documentary will be out on DVD in February 2013.

      • Great news thanks Marie. I presume it will be available in the MJshop and we will have advanced warning through the fan club. I just loved the part of the interview I saw – it is sooo nice to hear people saying lovely things about Michael at last. Have just finished Defending a King and that was great also.

  19. What a fascinating discussion! I always learn so much here. It’s so great that so many really smart people are taking MJ seriously, appreciating his brilliance, understanding him at so many levels, spreading the word. It gives me hope.

    I really don’t have anything to add to the amazing Speed Demon discussion. Who knew? And I am really looking forward to the post on Leave Me Alone.

    But…straying off topic a little…
    on Nina’s comments about her reassessment of Michael’s “commercial” appeal: So many critics dismissed MJ because his music was a commercial success, as if artistic greatness and commercial success are mutually exclusive. I think MJ’s commercial success was proof of his artistic greatness. To make a change, he had to reach people. And he did and does and will continue to. Michael’s mission is to rock everyone’s world. He certainly has rocked mine. It seems to me that to be transformative, art has to reach people.

    Also, just wanted to share this, since I think this group would appreciate it: I often listen to the BBC world service, and this afternoon they had a roundtable discussion of young people who had experienced war as children. It was if they were quoting MJ about the importance of cherishing children., pointing out the obvious that they are the future. Everything they said reminded me of his songs about the suffering of children. Everyday as I watch the news, I am reminded of Michael and wish he were here. And then I realize that through his art he is.

    MJ seemed to understand, almost before anyone else, the direction our way of life was taking us and its global implications. I really believe his cultural significance will continue to grow as more and more people “hear” him — and really experience him.

    • Hi Eleanor good to ‘hear’ you – was wondering where you were these days. I quite agree with your last paragraph. I am sure that Michael is still, and will continue, to influence the world, and the more we as fans study him and spread his word the more he will be ‘heard’.
      Looking forward to the new blog tomorrow.

    • Hi Eleanor. Since I’ve been involved in making a very obscure form of art nearly all my adult life, I’m coming at this question from a somewhat different angle.

      Artists who are less acclaimed and whose efforts may be less accessible than the work of a pop star like Michael, are very often doing transformative work, I think. They may be doing it on a smaller scale, or in ways that seem nearly imperceptible, since they reach far fewer people than Michael ever did. And I think the greatness of success (and the success of greatness) is also directly tied in to marketing strategies etc. , which may (and often does) put lesser artists at the forefront of our consciousness, though they may be doing work that can hardly be said to transform anything.

      For example, the work of published poets has, for the most part, a miniscule audience and almost zero commercial potential. These artists must struggle with questions of consequence all the time, throughout their active lives, carrying on their work in the knowledge that it will reach only a handful of readers. In my view, these realities don’t make their work any less transformative than that of hugely popular and commercially successful pop musicians. Looking back at history, we know that many, many artists who are now considered great, never enjoyed commercial success in their own time. For example, Vincent Van Gogh never sold a painting while he lived. Many more examples abound…. we can probably even find a number in pop music!

      In modern times, there have always been relatively marginalized artists and art forms that have produced consequential work. And from our own vantage point in history, we may not be in a good position to say what the full effect of our work is, or how it may influence those who come later.

      In the throes of discouragement over these questions, I once bemoaned the seeming “futility” of my labors to a former teacher. He said, “But, who would have thought that a group of poor sharecroppers in the South would have invented the most important musical form of the twentieth century?” It was a startling observation. And Michael Jackson knew that he was standing on the shoulders of giants, so to speak—giants that may have been more or less unknown, for all their greatness. One of them, in fact, may have been among Michael’s ancestors: a poor southern sharecropper, who sang and played the guitar for his own pleasure and for the entertainment of family and friends.

      Still, you may be right. In this century, poets, painters, experimental filmmakers (like me) and musicians who produce sounds that are less *familiar* (and therefore less saleable) to popular audiences are probably becoming increasingly irrelevant.

    • Hi Eleanor and Nina. This discussion of commercial success and how that relates to critical relevance is really important, I think. It seems to me that, over time, there have been misguided inferences made in both directions: that a superstar must be important because of their popularity (i.e., their popularity proves they’ve had a large cultural impact) or that the same artist must not be important for the exact same reason (i.e., their broad popular appeal is itself evidence that they must be a lightweight).

      I see these extremes all the time, in both directions, and it has real effects. As far as I know, none of the university presses in the U.S. has ever published a book about Michael Jackson. There are probably many reasons for this, but I think partly it’s because he was a popular artist, and his work has been trivialized because of that. The University of Chicago Press has published a book about the cultural impact of the Zippo lighter, but not Michael Jackson. That’s ridiculous.

      At the same time, I see artists in forms that are not popular right now (like poetry, as you point out, Nina) whose work is trivialized not because of the quality of their work or the ideas it expresses, but because it doesn’t reach a large audience. That’s equally inaccurate, I think, and painful to boot.

      The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to question whether popular appeal and artistic relevance aren’t two unconnected values, like hair color and height, that have been joined erroneously. You can’t predict someone’s hair color from their height, any more than you can predict an artist’s artistic importance from their popularity. Some artists (like Michael Jackson) have both. Some have neither. And some have one but not the other to varying degrees. I’m really starting to believe there’s no essential correlation between the two.

      • Willa, I agree it’s an interesting and relevant discussion… and a very complex one.

        Since the rise of Cultural Studies in the academy several decades ago, there has actually been quite a large number of books on popular culture or popular artists, published by university presses. For the sake of comparison, we could look at the number of books that have come out on, say, the Beatles or Elvis over the years—either essay collections or single-author volumes. I’m sure we’ll find any number of these, as well as books on James Brown and many other musicians! I predict that there’ll be more publishing on Michael Jackson through these kinds of presses in the next few years. I hope so.

        Meanwhile, several books have appeared that were put out by, if not an actual university press, then small publishers whose offerings are directed to a more specialized audience of scholars:

        —The forthcoming “Michael Jackson: Grasping the Spectacle,” a collection of essays by scholars, edited by Chris Smit, and arriving soon from Ashgate Press.

        —“The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson,” edited by Mark Fisher, and published by Zero Books, out of the U.K.

        —As Joe Vogel’s recent blog entry notes, musicologist Susan Fast will be writing a short book on the Dangerous album, which is being published through the 33 1/3 series, a division of the Continuum Press.

        Plus, there have been (by my count) four special MJ-themed special-issue academic journals. Only one of these, unfortunately, has made all the articles readily available online: the Journal of Pan-African Studies, March 2010:


        • Hi Nina. I’ve been debating about whether to reply about this or not. In some ways it seems inappropriate to share my personal frustrations in a public forum like this, but I think they raise serious questions about why none of the university presses has published a single book about Michael Jackson when, as you say, they have published books about the Beatles and Elvis and other popular musicians and pop culture figures.

          I have been contacting acquisitions editors at university presses for nearly a year now, and my sense is that they simply aren’t comfortable publishing a book about Michael Jackson. I just received my latest rejection last week, and here’s what it said: “We have all found this to be a very interesting study, accessibly written and grounded in theory. But we feel that the audience is just too niche for us to take this on.” They have published books about people I’ve never even heard of before, but the acquisitions committee decided that a book about the biggest pop star of all time is “too niche.”

          Here’s one from a couple months ago: “It’s a lively and provocative approach, but I’m afraid we’re not the right publisher for it.” She was actually very nice and suggested another university press. I sent them a proposal and they rejected it also.

          Here’s one from last spring, from a university press specializing in academic analysis of pop culture: “This looks like a very good project, but it’s not something I can take on right now.”

          And here’s one of my first rejections last fall, from a press known primarily for their emphasis on pop culture: “I don’t think the Jackson family makes a great case for challenging anti-Semitism; Janet Jackson has been quoted saying some pretty blatantly anti-Semitic things that Michael didn’t counter” and “I just don’t think the project is a good fit for our list.” (btw, my impression is that the person who wrote this is not Jewish.)

          That last statement about not “a good fit for our list” is one I’ve been hearing frequently. Of the dozen or so university presses I’ve contacted so far, nine have said that my book doesn’t fit their lists – and I’m being told this by university presses that specialize in music, film, pop culture, and race and gender studies. A book about Michael Jackson doesn’t fit their lists. A book about the Zippo lighter does, but Michael Jackson? No. That doesn’t make sense to me, and it makes me wonder what other factors may be at play. My feeling is that the reasons are complicated, but I think editors are strongly influenced by the fact that he simply makes them (and academics in general) very uncomfortable.

          It does feel like things are starting to change a bit, and I’m excited about Susan Fast’s upcoming book about Dangerous. btw, Dr. Fast has agreed to join Joie and me for a blog post, and we’re very excited about that as well!

          • Why is Michael Jackson “TABOO”? Liberals and conservatives shun him, believers and athiests curse him, whites and blacks reject him, cultural elites ridicule him, ordinary folk consider him perverse. He is, as he said in his song, “UNTOUCHABLE”. Why is this one man so far beyond the pale that even writing a scholarly book about him is unthinkable? There is something so enormous, so blindingly powerful, about this man’s life, that no one can be allowed to approach it. Do you think there is fear involved, fear of confronting what this man’s life really was all about? Fear that if we see the truth, things will fall apart and come back together in a whole new way of seeing….

          • aldebaranredstar

            So sad, Willa, that you are getting these ‘not a good fit’ responses, but is this a new manuscript or something related to the M Poetica??? I am dying to know, of course! I wonder if Susan Fast’s publisher would be one you could contact? Also there is an updated version of the Mary Fisher article ‘Was Michael Jackson Framed’ coming out very soon (see Amazon) and maybe that publisher also could be a possibility? Good luck and I hope your ms. will be published by a good publisher asap. It is so frustrating though, esp., as you say, when univ.presses are publishing, but just not on Michael. Maybe univ.presses are not sufficiently adventurous??

      • Hi Nina and Willa — This is such an interesting topic for me, too. For years I believed commercial success was incompatible with artistic merit. And then there was MJ. And, as you said, Nina, he rocked my world in a million ways. MJ’s trajectory is the opposite of many artists: he was/is a huge commercial success from the start; but it may take years for his true artistic merit and cultural significance to be recognized. My comments were in no way meant to disparage artists who do not enjoy commercial success. I was mainly thinking about the people who make artistic judgments. Academics (I’ve been one, been married to one, been around a lot) and art critics often see themselves as gatekeepers of the culture and are very wary of anything that really challenges their deepest held cultural values — those that their own careers have been built on. These people promote art that may be transformative, but is transformative only in the way it takes their cultural values to a new level — only in the way it reinforces and expands their worldview.

        An artist like MJ (is there another artist like MJ?) is transformative in a very different way in that he radically transforms the culture itself; his art reflects and embodies a radical cultural transformation that is very threatening to the cultural gatekeepers. And it was this threat that aroused so much hatred and hostility.

        Also, to make matters worse, he openly declared that his goal was to be a commercial success, which many saw as crass, thinking that his goal was merely to make money, when what he meant was he wanted to reach as many people as possible. To transform people, you have to reach them. His goal was to create music that millions of people loved — that made people happy. His art was his love letter to us. And, even his social commentary is done in the spirit of compassion and love. I can’t think of another artist that used his art so brilliantly to express L.O.V.E.

        MJ’s art reflected and spoke to and arouses a new cultural consciousness, feeding a hunger, filling a void. He was driven to reach millions and he had the skills to make it happen and he was using the right media — music and video/film.

        As to the many flowers that are “born to blush unseen and waste their sweetness on the desert air,” who knows how many great artists are just in the wrong place or the wrong time or are using the wrong medium. Different artists have different goals. I painted for many years; my earliest memories are of lying on the floor and drawing. But I just did it for the sheer pleasure of doing it. I had no goal of reaching anyone else. On the other hand, I have been working on a book having to do with cultural transformation for 3 years that no one will probably ever read, but which I am writing specifically because I think I have something of significance to say. But, I think, even if someone said to me there is no way anyone else will want to read it, I couldn’t keep from writing.

        It’s complicated.

        • Thanks, Eleanor. I totally agree: it’s complicated!

          I think it’s true that Michael’s unprecedented global appeal and the kind of market saturation he achieved, puts things in an entirely different scale— like a different order of magnitude. He then becomes a different kind of artist—not only in degree, but in kind. So if we think about his whole life as (say) an “event” of unparalleled cultural significance, we might be closer to the mark than considering his ‘greatness’ or ‘genius’ in a more abstract way.

          I’m interested in hearing about your book on cultural transformation, at any rate. (And I, too, am making films that nobody—except for(maybe) three colleagues—wants to see!)

          From my observation, Michael has been a topic of discussion, debate, publication, conferences, etc. in academic circles for a long time; nearly thirty years, judging from the papers/articles that have been published! If not in music departments, then certainly in Cultural Studies and American Studies kinds of places. But it depends what kind of programs/departments/fields we’re looking at. Academic research (in the humanities) has in recent decades gone deeply into areas of inquiry that affirm liminal/fluid identities, boundary crossing as to race, gender, sexuality, class, etc.

          From what I can tell, there’s really an *enormous* interest in those artists who transgress what were formerly perceived as rigid categories; so it would be entirely fitting that Michael Jackson comes forward as a figure who, in so many ways, academics want to study.

          In my experience, this kind of study goes on much to the horror of many MJ fans, who are more inclined to see Michael Jackson in less complex ways. And it also seems that publications like Rolling Stone, Mojo, Uncut—the influential popular music press—are lagging behind.

          I agree, some artists aren’t positioned as Michael was—in the right place at the right time, with a driving ambition, with more than anyone’s rightful (!) share of talent, with …. so much else. This kind of phenomenon doesn’t often happen in a lifetime.

          Thanks for your comments.

          • Hi Nina — I’m wondering how narrow these “reply” columns can get …

            Anyway, you said —

            “I think it’s true that Michael’s unprecedented global appeal and the kind of market saturation he achieved, puts things in an entirely different scale— like a different order of magnitude. ”

            I couldn’t agree with you more. And then there is the good fortune for us all that his medium, pop music, just happened to be the art form most easily and widely distributed. Talk about new wine (pop) in old (pop) bottles! Those bottles really popped.

            I also agree that MJ is “a different kind of artist—not only in degree, but in kind.” And I do think “about his whole life as (say) an “event” of unparalleled cultural significance.”

            Thanks for your kind interest in my book. Its working title is “Beyond Transcendence: Transforming our Relationship with Nature; and I am including a chapter on MJ entitled “Michael Jackson: Avatar of Immanence.” Really catchy, right!? Everyone’s going to rush right out…

            I would love to hear about your films.

  20. 1,000 Japanese fans made this t-shirt flip vid for Bad 25–Fun!!

  21. Sandra — I think you have nailed it —

    “There is something so enormous, so blindingly powerful, about this man’s life, that no one can be allowed to approach it. Do you think there is fear involved, fear of confronting what this man’s life really was all about? Fear that if we see the truth, things will fall apart and come back together in a whole new way of seeing….”

    From my own personal experience, I can witness to the fact that MJ took my world apart and gave me a whole new way of seeing with the result that on the one hand, I feel such pain and sadness and guilt over the way he was misunderstood, while on the other, I can’t wipe the smile off my face.

    The MJ experience and MJ’s vision are totally liberating; he turns our western worldview and value system on its head. So many biases and prejudices people have held onto for dear life, he casually and effortlessly casts aside. Love, freely given, love honored, can be a shattering experience. And love is what drives his art.

    Willa — Keep on plugging. I think we are moving toward a Michael Jackson renaissance and then the value of your book will be understood and be part of helping us all understand and appreciate his art. In the meantime, at least there is Kindle.

  22. I’m so sorry your efforts have been meeting with such resistance, Willa. I know that university presses have been in crisis lately, and have had to cut back drastically. I can only suggest to keep trying, and to find an editor who is familiar with the publishing scene, and can find a match between your approach and a good press.

    It’s so interesting, Eleanor and Sandra, how you describe your feelings: as a “shattering.” My experience mirrors this in so many ways.

  23. aldebaranredstar

    Sandra and Willa, Here are some thoughts from Matt Semino, the writer of the article “Michael Jackson: The Wounded Messenger” (it’s in the Reading Room here) and other articles too. He was interviewed by Lauren Trainor of the Jam Cafe Michael Jackson Tribute Portrait (MJTP) Online Magazine:

    “Lauren: Why do you think the media focuses so fiercely on negative aspects in regard to Michael, and virtually ignore his humanitarian and artistic legacy?
    Matt: Ratings. Easy sound bites. Profit. As long as media can continue to draw viewers and advertisers through a certain type of reporting style or story angle, whether it is about Michael Jackson or any other public figure, it will continue to do so. Many people could not understand Michael Jackson’s appearance, lifestyle, interpersonal relationships, child-rearing choices and other aspects of his personal actions. It became popular to ridicule Jackson, viewing him as an eccentric who stood outside of society’s norms and was to be feared. Whether or not these perceptions were justified, the media found it easier and more profitable to play to and reinforce sensationalized accounts of Jackson, as opposed to digging deeper into his humanitarian or artistic contributions to society.
    After years of this fiercely derogatory reporting, and as Michael Jackson’s legal and financial problems continued to mount, it became ingrained in the public consciousness that any news about Michael Jackson was going to be negative news. In my opinion, no matter what Michael Jackson did, this tidal wave of destructive media attention became too overwhelming and it ultimately broke his spirit.”

    This what anyone who publishes something positive on Michael is up against.

    Matt also went on to make this comment:
    “Lauren: What are your thoughts or impressions of Michael?
    Matt: Michael Jackson was larger than life. He is arguably among one of the most famous individuals in modern popular culture. The intensity and magnitude of his celebrity, talent, wealth and notoriety, allowed him to touch and connect people across the world through a common creative language. Yet at the same time, the amalgamation of these characteristics built a complex man who, although loved and adored by millions, was an enigma to many. Sadly, the combination of his extreme power with his extreme vulnerability made Michael Jackson an easy target for the unscrupulous. While Michael Jackson’s enormous and positive impact on culture and humanity will be felt by future generations, his life story is ultimately a modern-day Greek tragedy. It was a tragedy though that did not have to happen.”

  24. aldebaranredstar

    On a lighter note, I finally got my Wembley Bad 25 concert dvd–wow–Michael was so amazing and so beautiful and so energetic. He seemed to only take one break when the band played. I don’t know how he had the stamina to do that–I had to take a break myself as his performance was so intense. I took a break, but he didn’t!!

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